2008: The Best Year In Sports History?

NPR's Tom Goldman relives the highlights: A remarkable Super Bowl upset. The epic Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Tiger Woods winning the U.S. Open with a bad knee. Record-smashing performances at the Olympics. And, the Celtics and Lakers back in the NBA finals.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Sports fans love a good argument, and we're going to start one right now. This year in sports, 2008 was the best ever. NPR's Tom Goldman certainly thinks so.

TOM GOLDMAN: OK, sports history experts, take your best shots. 1960? That was a good year. The Rome Olympics with Wilmer Rudolph and Cassius Clay, before he became Muhammad Ali. A home run by Pittsburgh's Bill Mazuroski beats the Yankees and wins the World Series.

1969? Maybe even better. The Miracle Mets win the World Series. John Namath and the Jets shock the football world and win the Super Bowl. Aussie Rod Laver wins the tennis Grand Slam. All very impressive, obviously, every year, has signature moments, but honestly, all you sports history experts are playing for second place.

Unidentified Man: 39 seconds left…

GOLDMAN: After what happened this year...

(Soundbite of Super Bowl commentary)

Unidentified Man No. 1: Manning, lobs it. (Unintelligible) It's a long touchdown, New York!

(Soundbite of Wimbledon tennis match commentary)

Unidentified Man No. 2: There's a new man at the helm of match tennis, Rafael Nadal.

(Soundbite of Olympics swimming commentary)

Unidentified Man No. 3: Two in two nights. Look at him go. The champion, Michael Phelps, the swimming thoroughbred. He's got 20 minutes to swim. He's still in front. He looks so good, so easy. Another world record, Michael Phelps!

(Soundbite of U.S. Open commentary)

Unidentified Man no. 4: This to stay alive in sudden death. And, in one of the most remarkable performances of his career, Tiger Woods perseveres through Tory Pines and wins a third U.S. Open Championship.

GOLDMAN: That was Eli Manning throwing the winning touchdown pass as heard on Fox T.V. in the New York Giants stunning upset of previously undefeated New England in the Super Ball. Some called it the greatest ever. Spaniard Rafael Nadal won an epic Wimbledon men's final, dethroning champion, Roger Federer. Michael Phelps was a consensus greatest ever, when he won a record eight gold medals to highlight a great Beijing Olympics. And then on NBC, Tiger Woods, whose name really should be Tiger Woods' Greatest Ever, won golf's U.S. Open, essentially on one leg.

(Soundbite of U.S. Open commentary)

Unidentified Man No. 5: Throughout the weekend, how much was the knee bothering you? And how much of a factor was it in this championship?

TIGER WOODS: (Golfer) I'm glad I'm done.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TIGER WOODS: I'm done.

GOLDMAN: But we're not, the cavalcade of greatness included Jimmie Johnson, who became just the second man to win three straight NASCAR titles. The Boston Celtics, one-time MBA royalty returned to the throne by winning the championship in June. They came back for a new season, even better. This December game was on ESPN.

(Soundbite of basketball game commentary)

Unidentified ESPN Commentator: The Boston Celtics come away with an 88 to 85 victory. Their sixteenth consecutive win, and the beat goes on for the Celtic Nation.

GOLDMAN: Here's another measure of 2008's greatness. It silenced some of sports' harshest critics. Will Leach created the snarky sports blog, Dead Spin. He likes to take satirical swipes about what bugs him about sports. And covering his first Super Ball. Leach found fertile ground.

Mr. WILL LEACH (Sports Critic): So much of the Super Ball is about people selling things. Or people trying to get you to drink their lousy sports beverage, or wear their lousy sneakers. But, by the end of the week, of being out there, I was so distressed, I was like, ugh, I don't even want watch the game.

GOLDMAN: But then the game happened.

(Soundbite of Super Bowl commentary)

Unidentified Man No. 6 : 17, 14 Giants.

GOLDMAN: One of the most thrilling sporting events Leach, or anybody else, had seen.

Mr. LEACH: Once all the clutter was cleared away, there was an amazing game. And that was a big moment for me, it kind of renewed my faith in it a little bit, it was pretty exciting.

GOLDMAN: Leach himself, was part of a sports moment in 2008. His televised debate with award winning author Buzz Bissinger illustrated the contentious crossroads we're at with how sports are reported. On the HBO program "Costas Now," Bissinger, a former newspaper reporter, said this to Will Leach.

Mr. BUZZ BISSINGER (Former Newspaper Reporter, Debate HBO Program): I really think you're full of (blank).

Mr. LEACH: OK. Well that's - that's says fair enough.

Mr. BISSINGER: Because I think that blogs are dedicated to cruelty. They're dedicated to journalistic dishonesty. They're dedicated to speed.

GOLDMAN: Bissenger says he regrets the anger, but stands by his message: That the proliferation of blogs will affect the way we all connect with sport.

Mr. BISSINGER: It's all going to be about entertainment, and this idea of whether it's true or not is going to count for less and less. So, I think it's going to probably end up painting athletes in even worse lights than they're painted now. And just further the kind of breakdown and chasm that exists between athletes and writers.

GOLDMAN: But like Will Leach, Bissinger was rescued from his sports funk by the games. Bissinger was thrilled when his beloved Phillies won the World Series and then paraded through downtown Philadelphia. A baseball season that started under the cloud of the Mitchell Report on doping ended with a city known for its losing teams, feeling like a winner. It was a banner sports year for those who cheer and those who do, like Santino Ferucci.

Mr. SANTINO FERUCCI (Go-Kart racer): I'm 10 years old.

GOLDMAN: With a mop of blond, curly hair and blue eyes, Santino Ferucci, all four feet four and 54 pounds of him, is a Go-Kart racing phenom. He regularly beats teenage rivals, going as fast as 80 miles an hour. And the only time he gets nervous, he says, is when the races start.

Mr. FERUCCI: Because when the start is always the trickiest part, because if somebody crashes, you got to find a way out.

GOLDMAN: And he usually does. Racing since the age of five, this was Santino's best year. He was in 28 events and won 18, including major competitions in Florida and Canada. Through it all, to his dad's delight, Santino remains humble.

Mr. FERUCCI: I just think I'm regular. I'm a regular race car driver. I just have lots of confidence and just try as hard as I can.

GOLDMAN: Simple wisdom from a special athlete, in a special year.

Tom Goldman. NPR News.

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